The mayors and city councils of Rockville and Gaithersburg met on May 14 to discuss the adequate public facilities ordinances (APFO) in place in both cities and in Montgomery County. The conversation focused specifically on how APFO policies effect school overcrowding in the county.
APFO policies are put in place to legislate a balance between the development of new communities and the existence of the infrastructure required to support the needs of these communities. For example, a new subdivision may not be constructed if the existing infrastructure — including roads, sewers, fire departments and schools — is not adequate to support the new community.
The May 14 discussion between officials from the two cities centered on the state of their schools. The city of Rockville’s APFO does not allow its schools to exceed capacity by more than 110 percent, while Gaithersburg’s ordinance allows its schools to exceed capacity by 120 percent. The Montgomery County APFO also allows schools to exceed capacity by 120 percent.
Among the Quince Orchard Cluster elementary, middle and high schools, there are varying degrees of enrollment and capacity. According to the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) website, Lakelands Park Middle School (LPMS) is operating slightly below capacity, while Quince Orchard High School and Fields Road Elementary School are operating at or near capacity. Rachel Carson (RCES) and Diamond (DES) elementary schools, however, have projected enrollments that far exceed the capacity for each building.
While not officially considered part of the Quince Orchard Cluster, DES students attend LPMS before going on to Northwest High School.
RCES’ ideal capacity is 668 students, but its projected enrollment for the 2012-13 school year is 905 students. Likewise, DES can accommodate 463 students, but its projected enrollment for the 2012-13 school year is 618 students. The county has projected enrollment through the 2017-18 school year, and the overcrowding issue does not appear to improve over time.
The Montgomery County Board of Education has entered into a contractual agreement with the architectural firm of Walton, Madden, Cooper, Robinson, Poness, Inc. to provide a feasibility study to determine the scope and cost for a classroom addition at DES. According to the MCPS website, DES will exceed capacity by four classrooms or more by the end of the six-year period currently being studied. Relocatable classrooms, or portables, will be utilized until additional capacity is developed.
Both additions and boundary studies have been evaluated to relieve overcrowding at RCES in the past. Adding on to the current building has not been found to be a viable option, and boundary discussions in recent years have not resulted in changes for the school.
Quince Trace, a new Pulte Home luxury townhouse community located on Darnestown Road, may add more students to the school’s already high enrollment. “I’m not sure how the new community will impact our attendance at this time. It’s a 45-lot neighborhood, so it may or may not have a significant impact,” said RCES Principal Larry Chep.
“The county’s APFO, not the city’s, applies to Quince Trace because the development is just outside the city boundaries,” said Gaithersburg City Council member Ryan Spiegel. “Had this development been in the city, it almost certainly would not have been allowed to be built under the current city APFO in light of the levels of overcrowding at RCES.”
RCES’ recent Blue Ribbon designation may also have an impact on enrollment at the school. Parents who currently send their children to private schools may take another look at RCES due to its high academic achievement.
“The kindergarten class that is incoming appears to be a large class, which will likely yield a new kindergarten classroom this year. Whether or not that is impacted by the Maryland state Blue Ribbon recognition, the school is prepared for the entry of those children,” said Liz Fontek, RCES PTA president.
“I’ll have a better idea about private school students enrolling at [RCES] as the end of the school year winds down and summer is upon us. I already know we have enrolled our biggest kindergarten group in the past 10 years,” said Chep. “Only time will tell how the Blue Ribbon will impact enrollment.”
“The county’s APFO operates on a formula that looks at capacity across the entire cluster rather than at any one particular school,” said Spiegel. “Because other schools in the cluster are not as crowded and the county takes into account a kind of cluster-wide average, the overcrowding at RCES does not prevent new development under the county’s test. By contrast, the city’s APFO looks at individual schools, which we think is a more realistic method.”
“The system currently in place is not working, and we should sit down with the county executive and county Planning Board to figure out the best way to do this. Everyone involved has said that they would like to be a part of the discussion, and I would like to start the process this summer,” said Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney Katz.
“I think Mayor Katz said it best: ‘If I’m starving and my next door neighbor is having a feast, on average, we’re both doing fine. But in reality, that doesn’t help me much,’” said Council member Jud Ashman.
“We met with the city of Rockville because their test is stronger than the county’s test,” said Katz. “I believe that we all should be working with the same test for schools,” Katz said.
The city of Gaithersburg tries to provide relief from the overcrowding in the cluster in a variety of ways. “We try to set aside land for future school sites that may help ease the overcrowding in the cluster,” said Spiegel.
“For instance, during the approval process to annex and develop the Crown Farm, the city made sure to set aside about 30 acres for a future high school. When a school is eventually built there, it might absorb some of the population now being directed to QOHS, depending on how the county draws district boundaries at that time. We were able to secure the school site for the community at no expense to the county or the taxpayers,” Spiegel said.
“[RCES] is a terrific school with a very creative and effective staff. For many years it has been challenged by overcrowding. It is a testament to the community that RCES has continued to thrive,” said Ashman.